Air service becoming a bigger factor in the Gunnison Valley economy

JSX looking at direct flights from both Dallas and Austin

[  By Mark Reaman  ]

While higher lodging rates in the valley seem to have put a damper on the drive market coming into the valley this past summer, the airline traffic was robust and those higher spending visitors apparently made up in spending what was lost with fewer overall people coming to the valley. 

Tourism and travel officials acknowledged at the September 16 Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) board meeting that it seemed there were fewer visitors in the area this past summer than the previous two, but sales tax revenue is up. For example, the RTA sales tax collections in July were up 9.4% over 2021 while in Crested Butte, July sales tax came in 11% over last summer.

Early indications are that the winter air program will also be busy and in fact the booming summer success of boutique air carrier JSX is leading to winter service that could result in not only direct flights from Dallas to Gunnison on the 30-passenger business-class flights, but direct flights from Austin, Texas as well. The RTA board agreed to extend JSX a $120,000 subsidy offer to start the Austin service this winter. 

JSX had offered the Austin service for a higher, undisclosed subsidy and after an executive session at the September 16 meeting, the RTA board settled on the $120,000 figure. JSX indicated it could start service January 12, 2023 and run through the ski season with 48 roundtrip flights from Austin. 

JSX has already committed to 72 roundtrip flights originating out of Dallas for the ski season and based on an incredible 90%+ load factor with their summer flights, they are not asking for any Dallas subsidy. Those flights are already loaded and available for booking on their website. While the RTA board approved the idea of the $120,000 subsidy after an executive session, it will be up to JSX officials whether to accept the offer or not.

Several local citizens advocated for the RTA board to support more air traffic into GUC, particularly with JSX. 

Meanwhile, Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) executive director John Norton told the board that local “lodges raised rates significantly and the drive market declined but the air market was very strong. Lodging revenues were very solid.”

When asked, Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport manager Rick Lamport added that that while his crew does not specifically track private jet traffic coming into GUC, “you can see there was a noticeable increase in such traffic this past summer.”

RTA board member Jason MacMillan acknowledged the “demographic shift” in visitors and asked if the lodging rates were responsible. Norton said it was a major factor.

“People coming here were used to paying $125 or $150 a night for a hotel room,” Norton said. “And that is now up significantly. We continue to direct our marketing at the 20, 30 and 40-somethings who use trails. You could feel there were fewer people in the towns this season. More people apparently hung out at home this summer.”

“Crested Butte and Gunnison lodging is still much more affordable than most other resort markets,” noted TAPP air consultant Jeff Moffett.

Norton agreed. “To Jeff’s point, if you look at some lodging costs at other resorts, it is unbelievable,” he said citing some stays at the Little Nell in Aspen last summer were coming in at several thousand dollars a night.

RTA air consultant Kent Myers said the same scenario was happening in the Vail Valley where he lives. “I’ve been told there that staffing is very challenging, so the hotels won’t rent all of their rooms,” he explained. “As a result, they charge a higher rate on the rooms they do rent.”

Because those travelling to the area by air typically spend more money than those that arrive by vehicle, sales tax revenues have remained healthy. “We had a great summer in terms of the air market,” said Myers. “I can’t say enough good things about the summer air traffic.”

As for the coming winter, it is early, but Myers said the United Airlines Houston bookings are already looking great and are double over what they were a year ago at the same time. He said early bookings through Dallas on American Airlines and Denver with United were doing okay. He could not say enough complimentary things about the JSX flights.

Norton said TAPP is preparing plans to market the winter air programs.

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